Cutthroat vs. Passion. Who Will Win? Leadership Lessons From American Idol

Passion makes it possible to be both humble and competitive at the same time.

“What does humility mean?” she asks. 

I pause American Idol, the TV show my daughter and I have watched together each and every one of her very short 11 years.  One of the judges just told a contestant that the reason she was so likable was because she had humility.  

“It means that you don’t believe you are more important than anyone else,” I reply.  

She gets that cute little furrow in her brow when she’s trying to figure something out.  

“What?” I ask.  

“I don’t get it.  These people are all competing against each other.  How can you want to win the competition against other singers but also not think you are more important than them?”

Whoa. Does my daughter view the world like some sort of bloodless Hunger Games where humility is in short supply in order to get the win?  

If I look around at her peer group (and their parents)...maybe.  But more on that later.

I think that where she, and many people, get confused is in the nature of the ambition.  In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins and his team define an excellent (what they call a Level 5) leader as having “a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.”  

To paraphrase, Collins says that the level 5 leader is ambitious, to be sure, but the ambition is first and foremost for the company, for the organization, for the purpose…

…for the passion!  Not for personal power over others.   At least good leaders don’t have this goal.  

Hmmm...could passion create humility?

I remember all of the good leaders that I’ve known in my lifetime.  When I think back...yes...they were all ambitious through a personal passion.  Customer Service. Quality. Integrity.  

There was no doubt that they were the boss, but they also never felt superior or, should I say, they never had a superior air about themselves.   At the same time they pushed me hard.  They asked for, and made me want to do, more.  Achieve more.  

Why?

Because they wanted me to support them in their passion, not just support them as a boss.   Not surprisingly, this passion was something I could get behind and support. 

Not surprisingly, those good bosses had personal humility.

However, now that I think about it, this also reminds me of the average-to-bad leaders I’ve had where profits in themselves were the only goal. Those were miserable days.  

No passion.  Not much humility either.

I felt like I just needed to punch a clock. I never felt like I wanted to go above and beyond. Good leaders know that vision and passion will bring profits, not the other way around.

This is why I worry about kids these days.  I see a lot of goals but where is their passion?  We are getting horrible confused.  

Passion is often more about ideals, not achievements!  

Why are they trying so hard to get a 5.0 GPA?  Is it because they want to fulfill their dream of becoming a doctor or is it just because they think they need to beat out the other kids to get into an Ivy League school for god-only-knows-what reason?  Then what?  

It seems like every kid I know is on a competitive league, sport team or enrolled in a single sport summer camp so they can ‘gain an edge’ over the other kids.  Again, is this because they have true passion for the sport or is this just a "passion" to put on the college application?  

In conversations with the parents on the sidelines, it seems more and more like the parents…I mean the kids… are trying to gain one of those coveted, but rare and elusive scholarships. Those sidelines can be full of frustration, stress and even anger.

Madeline Levine, a Marin psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well, warns about creating ‘star’ children who lack an authentic sense of self and personal passions.  Forget about leadership, this constant stress on kids can contribute to significant emotional problems.

I look at the TV again.  

One of the contestants has been pursuing music from a young age and has spent the last two years of her life as a street performer.  Another contestant has also been pursuing music from a young age, but has an ever hovering stage mom that the cameras can’t stop locking onto.  It’s a stereotype for sure, but it’s easy to see who has the genuine passion for music and performing and who simply has the ambition OVER the other contestants.  

Indeed, the passionate and driven one always gets the most votes on the show. And to prove Collins’ point, she seems the most modest and genuine.  She was the one the judges called "humble".  She appreciates that she’s competing with some extremely talented people.  I’m sure her street performer days taught her that.  

Unfortunately, as a parent, the idea that my child could be a street performer makes my stomach lurch even if they might be incredibly joyous and happy in what they are doing.  

And so, I can fall victim to this achievement arms race myself.  I’m always one precarious step away from being that stage mom.

“Why don’t you want to be on the state soccer team rather than just the regional team?”  “Why didn’t you get an A on that test?”  

During these moments, it’s difficult to remember how hard it was to get fired up about profits.  I have to remember that A’s are my children’s “profits”.  That isn’t the goal.  That isn’t passion.

Uh oh.  

Haven’t I been modeling humility?!

Does our daughter actually believe you can’t think about others in the process of getting what you want, so…therefore…you cannot be humble?

Haven’t we been teaching her that the best leaders and people we know are driven through genuine passion toward a goal or vision but never at the expense of others?  Doesn’t she know that her father and I only want her to realize her dreams, not just her A’s?

“Mom?” she asks, bringing me out of my panic stricken thoughts.  

“How can a person want to win, but still be a nice person who doesn’t think they are better than others?”

“Great question.”

-Laura
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